Centre-based childcare may benefit pre-school children and alleviate inequalities in early childhood development, but evidence on socio-emotional and physical health outcomes is limited. Data were from the UK Millennium Cohort Study (n=14,376). Inverse-probability weighting was used to estimate confounder-adjusted population-average effects of centre and non-centre-based childcare (compared to parental care only) between ages 26-31 months on (age 3): internalising and externalising symptoms, pro-social behaviour, independence, emotional dysregulation, vocabulary, school readiness, and body mass index. To assess impacts on inequalities, controlled direct effects of low parental education and lone parenthood on all outcomes were estimated under two hypothetical scenarios: 1) universal take-up of centre-based childcare; and 2) parental care only. On average, non-centre based childcare improved vocabulary and centre-based care improved school readiness, with little evidence of other benefits. However, socio-economic inequalities were observed for all outcomes and were attenuated in scenario 1 (universal take-up). For example, inequalities in externalising symptoms (according to low parental education) were reduced from a confounder-adjusted standard deviation difference of 7.8 (95% confidence intervals: 6.7, 8.8), to 1.7 (0.6, 2.7). Inequalities by parental education in scenario 2 (parental care only) were wider than in scenario 1 for externalising symptoms (at 3.4 (2.4, 4.4)), and for emotional dysregulation and school readiness. Inequalities by lone parenthood, which were smaller, fell in scenario 1, and fell further in scenario 2. Universal access to centre-based pre-school care may alleviate inequalities, while restricted access (e.g. during lockdown for a pandemic such as Covid-19) may widen some inequalities in socioemotional and cognitive development.
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